Ali Was Not the Government's "Greatest"

Two days before the Christmas release of the film, Ali, the Motion Picture Industry Assn. announced that it endorsed the effort by a Hollywood industry group to recruit Muhammad Ali to film a Public service announcement extolling the treatment of Muslims in America. While the Bush administration was publicly mute on the announcement, Ali would not have been chosen to be America's foreign pitchman without its approval.

Since the September 11 terror massacre, a Hollywood group loosely known as Hollywood 9/11 has feverishly worked with the Bush administration to support the war on terrorism by promoting happy images of American life to film audiences in Africa and the Middle East. And who better than Ali to deliver that message of ethnic and religious tolerance. He is still America's best known and revered Muslim in the Middle East and Africa.

The choice of Ali was also another sign that the government has now shoved itself into the top rank among Ali's fans. But the government's star treatment of Ali is in stark contrast to its treatment of him during much of his professional career. In those years, Ali's greatest foe was not Joe Frazier, George Foreman, or Sonny Liston, it was the U.S. government.

In 1971 other black students and I invited Ali to speak on our campus. Ali arrived on campus followed by a small nest of FBI agents. During his short speech in the campus free speech area, they took notes, and snapped pictures of those in the crowd. Wherever he went, FBI agents tracked his every move.

Ali became a prime target of the government the moment he publicly announced he had joined the Nation of Islam in 1962, and was pals with Malcolm X. For decades, the Nation had been the target of the FBI's super-secret and illegal, domestic spy program that targeted liberal, left, and especially black groups and leaders. In 1967, the government closed the trap on him. It rejected his claim that he was a conscientious objector based on his Muslim beliefs, yanked his draft deferment, and declared that he was subject to immediate army induction. Ali recognized the peril. He charged that the government had reversed itself in a transparent attempt to get rid of him.

In April 1967, he refused induction. In the hyper-charged racial climate of that day, when government and public opinion were almost universally hostile to black militants, Ali was doomed. A federal grand jury in Houston quickly indicted him, and an all-white jury speedily convicted him. He was slapped with the maximum punishment, five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. His passport was automatically revoked.

The FBI gleefully stepped up its effort to ruin him. In one of its mountainous wiretaps on Martin Luther King in 1967, it noted that Ali had proposed to donate the proceeds from a boxing match to King's organization. The match could not be held since every state boxing commission in the country had by then revoked his license.

Still, the FBI was alert for any hint that Ali might try to dodge legal restrictions on him to earn money in the ring. It targeted Howard Cosell, one of the few sports notable to champion Ali, Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee, and even Johnny Carson for surveillance. FBI agents were assigned to watch and record everything that Ali said whenever he appeared on Carson's Tonight Show. FBI agents distributed "anti-violent statements" to counter what it called "the anti-Vietnam stand of Cassius Clay."

When boxer George Foreman waved an America flag on the victory stand after his Olympic gold medal victory in 1968, FBI officials arranged for him to get an award from the Freedoms Foundation in February 1969. This was an obvious rebuke to Ali. The foundation, closely aligned with the J. Edgar Hoover Foundation, bankrolled a motley assortment of rabid right wing and segregationist groups. Top FBI officials made sure that Foreman got top media coverage for the award. The FBI's spy and intimidation operation against Ali was finally exposed in legal documents in his draft case in 1970. But an angry and embarrassed Hoover was not about to scrap his secret campaign to nail Ali. He immediately sent letters to President Nixon and Attorney-General John Mitchell justifying the FBI wiretaps.

On June 28, 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court tossed out his conviction. It held that the Justice Department had deliberately lied when it told Selective Service officials that Ali's claim to draft exemption was not sincere or based on legitimate religious beliefs.

That did not totally end the government's freeze-out of Ali. Even after much of the public and the sports and entertainment world heaped praise on Ali, it took another two decades for some government officials to join the chorus and sang his praise as "the greatest." Will Smith notwithstanding; there are some that probably still don't.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website: He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).

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